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Progressive lawmakers and campaign consultants claimed victory after the House Democrats’ campaign arm reversed a formal ban on working with firms linked to incumbent primary challengers, but some acknowledged the move may be more symbolic than substantive.
The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee’s so-called blacklisting policy, was implemented in 2019 after a bloc of far-left Democrats were elected to the House. It prevented consultants and vendors from obtaining potentially lucrative consulting contracts with the DCCC or being recommended to candidates by the committee if their client list also included any candidate seeking to unseat a Democratic incumbent in a primary.
The DCCC traditionally works to re-elect its incumbents and is funded in part by member dues. That’s why some progressives were skeptical the snub won’t still exist in practice, even if not on paper.
“This is an important victory for progressives, but we should ensure that a formal ban isn’t simply replaced with an informal ban,” said Waleed Shahid, a spokesman for Justice Democrats, a progressive organization that’s aided high-profile primary challengers. “When over 70% of congressional districts have no competitive general election, primaries are often the only venue where voters can have a real say in our democracy.”
There may be reason for skepticism. Ian Russell, a Democratic consultant who served as a top operative at the DCCC in the 2014 and 2016 elections, said he’s doubtful there will be much of a practical effect. There was no formal ban at the DCCC when Russell was there, but the committee was cognizant of firms’ client rosters.
“There was an unspoken understanding that you couldn’t come to the DCCC, which is a member-funded organization, looking for work for some battleground Blue Dog one day, and then sign up a primary challenger the next day,” he said.
The effect of the ban’s removal is limited by the fact that few primary challengers have the resources needed to run a credible race against an incumbent, though more incumbents may be vulnerable to defeat in the 2022 primaries after redistricting gives them new territory.
The ban also didn’t guarantee protections to incumbents. In the 2020 election, when it was in place, three House Democrats — Lacy Clay (Mo.), Eliot Engel (N.Y.), and Dan Lipinski (Ill.) — were unseated in the primaries, compared with two in the 2018 election, predating the blacklist. All of the primary defeats were in strongly Democratic districts that had no chance of flipping to Republican control.
DCCC spokesman Chris Taylor said in an emailed statement that “this policy change means that the only criteria for a vendor to be listed in the directory are our standards for fair business practices related to use of organized labor, critical diversity and inclusion standards, and other minimum qualifications.”
In an interview, Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.), who unseated a member of Democratic leadership in a 2018 primary, called the ban “very personal, even though it may not have been intended that way. It felt like a very targeted message of saying, ‘You’re not welcome, and anyone who has helped you get here is not welcome.’”
She also said the lifting of it would benefit not only progressives but all Democrats by giving them more access to consultants proficient in both the digital realm and activist networks. In the aftermath of the 2020 election, when Republicans exceeded expectations and came within five seats of winning the majority, Ocasio-Cortez slammed Democrats’ digital campaigning as “very weak.”
“This goes both ways,” she said in the interview. “It is a very large benefit to the party to have access to some of the greatest digital talent that exists in the country. Having that ban, I think, really hurt the party.”
Rep. Richard Neal (D-Mass.), who prevailed in a competitive primary last year, said he’s OK with the change but it’s important to continue to pay attention to with whom the DCCC works.
“There are those of us who have met our dues over a long period of time,” he said. “It would be pretty inconsistent to be offering support to people who were unhelpful to us.”
Rebecca Katz, a progressive consultant with New Deal Strategies, said progressives were “under no illusion that this is going to really change anything” as it pertains to landing clients. But she said that regardless of its effects, the landscape for firms such as hers has broadened in recent years as an “ecosystem of professional, progressive consultants” has sprung up.
Still, Katz claimed the ban’s reversal as a win for progressives. So did Russell, who called it “a huge victory for Ocasio-Cortez and the other progressive members who made this a cause.”
“The fact that they had to make this concession is a sign of the growing power of the progressive movement,” Katz said, “and the growing number of progressives in Congress that blacklisted firms like ours have helped to elect.”
New Deal Strategies was among the 30 progressive groups listed on the website dcccblacklist.com, which Justice Democrats created after the ban “to fight back and provide potential primary challengers with a database of go-to vendors, organizations, and consultants who will continue to support efforts to usher in a new generation of leaders into the Democratic Party.”
“The left and the progressives are building an infrastructure, and that infrastructure is competitive,” said Corbin Trent, a former Ocasio-Cortez aide and a co-founder of Brand New Congress, which recruits and supports progressive candidates. “We don’t need to wait for the DSCC, the DCCC, or whomever to give us a handout.” The DSCC is the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee.
Others were more optimistic about what the change will bring.
Connor Farrell, the founder and CEO of Left Rising, a progressive fundraising firm that helped Rep. Cori Bush (D-Mo.) unseat Clay in a 2020 primary, said he’s “hopeful that this announcement means that the party committees are more willing to engage with vendors who bring a different perspective, like us. We’re all on the same team, and I’m glad that they’re acting like it.”